The next principle is a key one: Have a “not knowing” approach.
I was first exposed to the idea of a “not knowing” approach in studying counseling techniques to prepare for my work as a chaplain and spiritual counselor. Used in narrative therapy, solution focused therapy, and a number of contemporary approaches to counseling, the key focus of a “not knowing” approach in counseling is to allow others to define their own terms for their experience and needs rather than it being dictated by another’s preconceived ideas, theology, or theory. In Interviewing for Solutions, Peter De Jong and Insoo Kim Berg give some illuminating quotes about how a not-knowing approach can work in a counseling situation:
“The not-knowing position entails a general attitude or stance in which the therapist’s actions communicate an abundant, genuine curiosity. That is, the therapist’s actions and attitudes express a need to know more about what has been said, rather than convey preconceived opinions and expectations about the client, problem, or what must be changed. The therapist, therefore, positions himself or herself in such a way as to always to be in a state of ‘being informed’ by the client …
“Curiosity leads to exploration and invention of alternative views and moved, and different moves and views breed curiosity … He [or she] is a poor observer who does not notice that a stimulating conversation between two persons soon create a condition to which each utters thoughts he [or she] would not have been able to produce by himself [or herself] or in different company …”
What they write about therapists is true not only for chaplains, pastors, nurses, and mentors but also true for all of us when we encounter another who is opening up to us about their life. One of the greatest ways to open yourself up to experience that of Christ in another’s life and, by bearing witness to Christ in that way, open who you are with up that of Christ in their life, is to approach them in these encounters with a not knowing perspective.
This means, rather than assuming what their values or needs are, to let them share their own experience and values and let your talking and questioning of them be focused on helping them refine their own understanding of this. It also means to not assume that you have answers to bring to their experience or questions they cannot discover on their own.
In chaplaincy and counseling circles, we often say that the person who is coming with the struggle, problem, or concern is the expert in their life, not we who try to help them. I think for those of us who believe that Christ is present in all of our lives, we could add that what counts is not getting people to look to us for their answers, but learning to look to where Christ is present and at work in their lives, to work together with the living Christ. Philippians 2:12-13 puts it well:
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Ultimately in each person we encounter, long before we come into their life, God is already present with, in, under, and through their lives. God is already teaching them through their life experiences, their web of relationships, their longings, and their questions. What people have to find a way is to be attentive to those places in their life where God is already working, speaking, and acting.
Entering into an encounter with this attitude involves laying aside our assumptions about others and engaging in curious inquiry. I like to think of it kind of like coming in on a scavenger quest. In each person there are both pains which shape them and treasures or resources in their lives which they may be aware of, yet about which they might only have limited awareness. You join them in a scavenger hunt where together you find both and in so doing help them connect with the pearls of great price hidden with their life.
Through doing so, you can begin to glimpse the image of God within them and the presence of Christ deep in their hearts and life. For me, at least, as I do this with others in one on one encounters it helps me learn to see that of Christ within me.
I would love to hear stories from you, my readers, about ways you have encountered that of Christ in others through a healthy curiosity, the path of not knowing.
Your progressive redneck preacher,